The racing crash that killed a Grass Valley man last month at a Linda racetrack was a tragic accident, the Yuba County Sheriff’s Department said Wednesday.
Toxicology test results are pending, but criminal charges are not expected in the deadly March 16 accident at Marysville Raceway Park that claimed the lives of Dale Richard Wondergem Jr. and Marcus Joseph Johnson of Santa Rosa.
“All signs point to this being an accident and not a criminal act,” Undersheriff Jerry Read said.
Wondergem owned a race car at the track but not the one involved in the crash.
The raceway in Marysville was hosting the California Sprint Car Civil War Series on the opening day of its season.
The crash occurred when six or seven “winged sprint cars” were doing warm-up laps before the start of a scheduled race. Chase Johnson’s car left the track at an undetermined speed and collided with Wondergem and Marcus Johnson before it tipped on its side.
Wondergem was pronounced dead at the scene. Marcus Johnson was taken to Rideout Hospital in Marysville where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.
Read said investigators were unable to confirm that driver Chase Johnson’s steering wheel came off during warm-up laps, causing it to crash into the track’s pit area.
“There was insufficient evidence to show anything either way,” Read said. “The wheel has to be removed to get the driver out of the vehicle.”
Investigators concluded the cause of the crash was “either driver error or a mechanical failure that we were unable to locate,” Read said. Looking into whether racetrack officials took adequate safety measures that night was not part of the investigation’s scope, the Sheriff’s Department acknowledged. Neither the federal National Transportation Safety Board nor the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have any jurisdiction over the privately owned racetrack, Read said.
The fact that the park has operated continuously for more than 50 years means it’s exempt from conditional use permit requirements, the Sheriff’s Department noted.
In short, there is no oversight for track safety.
While some racers have complained about track safety measures privately, park officials say the track is not unusually dangerous.
“The track is as safe as we can possibly make it and still accomplish what we want to do,” owner Paul Hawes said.
Hawes declined to comment on specific safety precautions in general or in place on the night of the deadly accident.
Last month’s crash was only the second fatal wreck in the racetrack’s long history. In 2010, Merle Shepherd Jr. died during a Big Rig Trucks exhibition.
Shepherd’s family filed a wrongful death suit against track operators, and the case is pending.
Rob Parsons is a reporter at the Marysville Appeal-Democrat.